Problems of “Authenticity” in Josquin Scholarship

by Alexandra Grabarchuk, Ph.D.

This essay originally appeared in the newsletter of the Southern California Early Music Society (SCEMS).  Reprinted with permission.  Visit the SCEMS website to join the Society and receive regular Southern California early music news and essays.  

“…there are no objective real works, any more than there are objective real authors.  It depends on our interest, that we build a certain image of a certain author, a philosopher or a composer.  Every time has its own image of Plato and Kant, every time has its own image of Bach and Mozart.  The more we fix their images, the more we are interested in their authenticity.  It is only from these fixations that it could be important to raise the question whether a certain work was in reality written by Kant, or Mozart, or by some unknown author: the intrinsic philosophical or musical significance remains always the same.  Or do you really believe that the meaning of the Critique of Pure Reason would diminish as soon as somebody had discovered that it was not written by Kant?  All these considerations concerning authenticity are part of our attitude in the twentieth century.” ~ Wim van Dooren, “General Problems of Authenticity in the Context of Renaissance Philosophy” in Proceedings of the International Josquin Symposium, Utrecht 1986.


Josquin the Man

 There is no other pivotal figure in music history about whom we know so little. Josquin is loudly touted as the central figure in Franco-Flemish music, yet there are less than two dozen items of archival data that provide any biographical information about him. Because of this scarcity, the temptation has been to scavenge information about anyone with a similar or closely related name. As David Fallows points out in his monumental Josquin, there are at least three other figures (Juschinus de Kessalia, Johannes Stokem, and Josquin Steelant) whose documents have erroneously been a part of the Josquin story, muddling up birth dates and questions of location and stylistic chronology until the late 1990s.

Scarcity of facts notwithstanding, Josquin continues to tantalize scholars, often to the point of great personal attachment. Willem Elders explains this attachment to the historical figure of Josquin through the prevalent and widely-circulated image of the Opmeer woodcut:


Josquin woodcut by Opmeer

Josquin woodcut by Opmeer


And yet even this explicit portrayal of the composer comes to us from such a distance that its resemblance to the person Josquin des Prez is questionable.  Firstly, the woodcut was copied from a painting, so it’s already a second-level representation. Yet even the verisimilitude of the painting is questionable at best, as Opmeer himself explains that it was painted after Josquin’s death and put in the Church of St. Gudule in Brussels as a way of immortalizing his memory. Not only was it painted posthumously, but 16th century painters did not share the realist values which emerged in post-Revolutionary France a few centuries later. Instead, the 16th century was marked by mannerism, a style of painting characterized by elongated figures, complex poses, and distorted settings – in other words, the unrealistic was in vogue. Judging by the woodcut, Josquin’s portrait was sufficiently simple that it’s hard to imagine it was much distorted. Regardless, one must keep in mind that it was painted by someone who didn’t necessarily value realism. 

In addition to all this, the skill of the woodcutter must be taken into account. By comparing existing paintings with their Opmeer woodcut counterparts, Elders convincingly argues that, even when copying a painting of a living person whose countenance was more familiar and widespread than that of Josquin, the resemblance is sometimes questionable.  In this side-by-side comparison of a painting and Opmeer woodcut of Pope Leo X, it is evident that although the general impression of the face is somewhat similar in both instances, it is not an overwhelming likeness.

Painting and Opmeer woodcut of Pope Leo X

Painting and Opmeer woodcut of Pope Leo X

Although Raphael did not paint in the Mannerist style, it is unclear how much the portrait of Pope Leo X actually resembled its model. What is clear, however, is that there are striking differences between the painting and woodcut.

 In other words, the image of Josquin scholars have clung to as the definitive visual representation of the composer may not be definitive at all. It is merely a fixed image the veracity of which we are unable to ascertain, and as Wim van Dooren points out in the epigraph, “the more we fix [historical figures’] images, the more we are interested in their authenticity.” Our idea of Josquin is a construction, as all historical work must be to some degree, and it has undoubtedly been shaped in part by this image, which does not necessarily stand out for its artistic excellence or exacting verisimilitude, but merely because it is the one image of Josquin that has survived.

 Josquin’s “canon”

The word canon signifies a body of work bound by some principle – whether it’s the canon of Romantic masterworks, the canon of classical music in general, or the canon of a particular composer.  The idea of the canon is often a fairly useful tool that allows music historians to talk about disparate pieces as belonging to a unified body of works. It is, however, an inherently problematic concept, and the problem becomes evident when one begins examining the unifying principle more closely. What counts as a Romantic masterwork? Is there a particular date past which musical works no longer count as Romantic? Is there a specific zeitgeist that imbues a piece with the Romantic spirit? How is this determined?  If we speak of “classical music” as a whole, what is included in that canon? Although it seems that the canon of a particular composer would be the most easily determined – after all, he or she either wrote the piece in question or not – it is still a problematic situation. The scarcity of historical evidence in Josquin studies brings these problems of authorship to light in a unique way.

 There are two types of conflicting attributions: those that offer no fundamental difficulty of resolution, and those that do. The first type of conflict is the kind that can be easily resolved through reliable historical evidence. The far more interesting type of conflict is one where no one lays an obvious claim to the particular composition; it is in these situations where scholars must develop other criteria for authenticity in order to solve the mystery. This frequently involves some investigative work of sources Finally, scholars can turn to some type of stylistic analysis, comparing the piece to other pieces securely authenticated as belonging within the canon and keeping an eye out for features unique to, or typical of, other works by the composer.

 What we have is a loosely formulated general consensus about which pieces were actually written by Josquin. I believe this idea of a group of works with a highly permeable boundary across which pieces move easily depending on current states of historical knowledge applies to any canon constructed around one composer. Below, I explore a group of works that have been attributed to both Josquin and Pierre de la Rue, highlighting the difficulty of pinpointing authorship and “authenticating” any given piece of music as belonging to one canon or another.

 Josquin and La Rue

Pierre de la Rue was arguably the finest composer of the Habsburg-Burgundian court at the turn of the 16th century. Yet after the 1530s, his fame waned and his music began to be copied without reference to his name. Previously attentive ears began to tune out of the stylistic differences between his work and that of Josquin, and a number of publishers and music scribes confused the two when making copies of the following eight works.

I wish to examine and comment on the techniques by which J. Evan Kreider analyzes and attributes three of these works: one to Josquin, one to La Rue, and one to an anonymous third party.  Through this examination, I hope to bring to light the methodology through which a “canon” is established, and demonstrate that canons as we know them are always fluid, permeable, and constructed.

Missa de beata virgine

 The Missa de beata virgine, composed just after the turn of the 16th century, is a paraphrase mass that, judging by the number of surviving sources,  appears to have been extremely popular. It is noted for its unusual voicing – the first two movements are written in four parts, and the last three in five.  Josquin was not known to have done this elsewhere, yet Kreider firmly places this piece within the Josquin canon, arguing that the misattributions of all three masses listed in the table above are resolved with relative ease. It seems that erroneous attributions of all three are found either in sources that contain conflicting attributions themselves, or have been found unreliable for other reasons. Let us examine how Kreider comes to this conclusion.

This mass does not seem to be a questionable case, as the numbers are clearly in Josquin’s favor. Of the surviving vocal sources, twenty-eight name Josquin as its author, three present the work without attributing it to a composer, and only one source points to La Rue. Of the surviving instrumental arrangements, ten indicate Josquin as composer, and the other two refrain from attributing it altogether. Yet it’s difficult to attribute it to Josquin with absolute certainty simply based on numbers – after all, scribes and copyists could have mistakenly perpetuated an erroneous attribution. The deciding factor comes from three places: Glarean’s mention of the mass, the Habsburg-Burgundian scriptorium, and the unreliability of the source that attributes it to La Rue.

 The only theorist to quote from this mass, Glarean mentions it in his Dodecachordon – and not only does he unhesitatingly name Josquin as the composer, he brings it up specifically to illustrate Josquin’s style of writing and masterful use of the modes. In other words, at the time it was felt that Josquin’s authorship of this piece was not only common knowledge, but exemplary of his style.  This in itself does not constitute proof, although it is fairly convincing.  But when one examines the manuscript sources published by the Habsburg-Burgundian scriptorium (the workshop responsible for putting out the best copies of La Rue’s masses), which is generally found to be an accurate source for attributions to La Rue, all three name Josquin as the composer of this mass. Finally, an extremely unreliable source which inexplicably splits up the movements of the Mass and attributes some to La Rue, and some to Josquin. From these disparate facts, it appears safe to say that the Missa de beata virgine was composed by Josquin. 

 Cent mille regretz

Unlike the preceding case, there are very few surviving sources for this chanson, making it more difficult to lean one way or the other merely by looking at numbers.  Cent mille regretz has been preserved in only three sources, one of which points to Josquin, one to La Rue, and one which declines to attribute it at all.  Here, Kreider turns to stylistic analysis to help resolve the mystery.  He points to three stylistic gestures as being indicative of the writing of Pierre de La Rue: strict canonic writing in the two lower voices (of the two composers, La Rue seemed to be particularly fond of canons, particularly in the tenor and/or bassus), the composer’s reliance upon a motive (the interval of a fourth generates much of the material in this chanson), and the dense texture of the chanson.  Kreider’s conclusion: “[a]lthough Renaissance musical fingerprints are uncommonly difficult to identify, we can safely conclude that Cent mille regretz is the work of La Rue.”

 Ach hülff mich layd

 The history of this piece is indicative of the bewildering array of attributions which occurred when 16th century musicians came upon a piece whose authorship was unclear. In this situation, the information that has trickled down to us in the 21st century first passed through the ears and minds of many a 16th century musician, with many different ideas about what the piece sounded like and where it fit into the grand scheme of things. For example, an ornamented keyboard transcription of the piece was attributed to Hans Buchner by his student, the Swiss copyist Fridolin Sicher. Later, an anonymous hand corrected this attribution to Josquin, but then scratched it out and connected it back to the original Buchner attribution.

 Yet looking at the musical characteristics, Kreider argues that this was the work of neither composer.  He presents the following points: 1) La Rue was not known to use the bar form elsewhere, 2) the voicing does not correspond to the previous work of either composer, 3) the borrowed melody occurs in the bassus, 4) the upper parts appear to be unrelated to this borrowed melody, and do not share motives with one another, and 5) the melodic writing “reflects the style of the previous generation.” The agenda one senses behind Kreider’s argument is that the piece was not sufficiently well-written to be attributed to either composer. It is difficult to say with certainty how persuasive the argument is, but it is clear that since musicians of the time didn’t know what to do with the piece, it didn’t strictly fit the compositional style or criteria of any one composer.

 Through this presentation of canon-forming methodology, I hope to have demonstrated the tentative quality of this type of work.  As inwardly compelling as stylistic analysis may be, or as persuasive as the numbers might be in any given case, Joshua Rifkin’s suggestion that a Josquin canon does not and cannot exist rings true. It seems that the best we can do with the scant historical information we have is to arrive at some temporary consensus regarding a particular piece, until new information is brought to light.